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Without Reforms, SES May Not Be Ready for 21st Century Government

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U.S. Army Forces Command Public Affairs

We recently collaborated on a new book, Building a 21st Century Senior Executive Service, published by the National Academy of Public Administration, but we’re not sure anyone cares—and that worries us.

We’re not concerned about book sales, since the book is not for sale. It’s available for free on the NAPA website. More importantly, it’s for a rather specialized audience of three groups: the career members of SES, the political appointees who depend on them to accomplish the nation’s business, and those who aspire to be part of that elite, if unsung, club. Taken together, the members of our target audience are the source of our concern.

Here’s what we’re worried about: We believe that the SES is facing a quiet midlife crisis. As it approaches its 40th birthday, it is still relatively young as government institutions go. But it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the SES is at risk. The well-publicized malfeasance of just a few of its members has put the entire senior executive corps squarely in the crosshairs of Congress and the public. While those headlines will fade, the demographics won’t change. This year, more than 65 percent of current SES members will be eligible to retire, and the best and brightest of their potential replacements—managers at the GS-14 and GS-15 levels—no longer automatically aspire to more lofty status.

In addition to the demographic challenge, our government is far more complicated than it was 40 years ago. Realistically or not, American citizens expect their federal government to maintain some semblance of order and progress amidst all the chaos, and the responsibility for doing so falls squarely on the federal government’s leaders, whether they are elected, appointed, or as in the case of the SES, selected for high office. To their great credit, these leaders are usually successful and, because of that, often taken for granted.

Yet, in this brave, new world, most SES members are developed, selected, deployed and rewarded today according to policies and practices firmly rooted in the last century. Thus our contention: that without a number of needed reforms, the venerable SES may not be up to the challenges posed by governing in the 21st century.

Our opinion is shared by the 22 senior political appointees and career executives who contributed to Building a 21st Century SES. These respected leaders have served a total of eight presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat, at the cabinet and subcabinet level. We asked them to write chapters addressing five fundamental questions:

  • What challenges are SES members likely to confront as they lead 21st century government?

  • Given those challenges, is the original vision for the SES still valid?

  • What leadership qualities will be required of SES members in the future?

  • How can government best identify and develop the next generation of SES members?

  • What can government do to sustain a viable, vital SES corps into the future?

Rather than provide a dry set of policy recommendations, we asked our contributors to address these issues through stories—about their careers, their defining moments as leaders, their personal leadership philosophies, and, most of all, their views on improving the SES—so others might learn from their experiences.

We greatly appreciate Government Executive’s decision to share some of these stories with its readers in the weeks to come. We believe that hearing from experienced leaders who have had to depend on the federal government’s career executive corps to fulfill the will of the people and the president will provide readers with a unique perspective on what it is that those career executives do and how well they do it.

The book offers a total of 23 recommendations for modernizing the SES. They are based on the decades of practical experience represented by the anthology’s contributors, who have worked with senior career executives on some of the most significant challenges our government has ever faced: the Global War on Terrorism, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the transformation of the IRS (twice), sequestration, the government shutdown of 2013, and the resurgence of Russia and China.

Those experiences provide the evidentiary basis for the conclusions and recommendations set forth in Building a 21st Century SES. That said, the recommendations are the responsibility of the editor and organizer of the book, Ron Sanders—not out of pride of authorship, but rather, because we neither sought nor suggest a consensus among its authors.

We believe it is no exaggeration to suggest there is a growing crisis in the SES. Unfortunately, that is overshadowed by the urgency of the beginning of a new administration. In government, “urgent” tasks always seem to overwhelm “important” ones. However, if President Trump wants his bold agenda to succeed, he and his cabinet officers and agency heads will need to draw the very best work from the career executives who operate behind the curtain.

The lesson that our contributors learned, sometimes the hard way, is that with the right political and career leadership, this can be done, and the nation will be better for it. That lesson serves as a legacy to those that are just now taking the oath of office. That is what Building a 21st Century SES is all about.

Terry Gerton is president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Ronald Sanders is a fellow of the academy and a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

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